Article: How Off-Grid Solar Access Impacts Literacy

By Anna Wells, GOGLA Senior Communications Adviser

Next month, the United Nations’ International Literacy Day will focus on ‘literacy in a digital world’. Without a doubt, digital technologies are changing the way people live, learn and work around the world. It’s more than likely that you’re reading this on a smart phone or laptop; technologies we rely on in our daily lives without so much as a second thought.

How many of the 758 million adults and 263 million children still lacking basic literacy skills live without electricity? The answer is almost impossible to calculate accurately, but given around 1.2 billion people globally live without reliable power, it could be assumed that a large portion of those who are illiterate also lack basic energy. And a UNDESA study, drawing data from 45 developing countries, showed that youth literacy rates were lower in countries where the electrification rate was below 80%.

Findings in our latest Global off-grid solar market report showed that there is a 164% increase in available hours of light per household after the acquisition of a solar lighting product, compared to time made available from previous light sources, such as kerosene or candles. And while no one is claiming that every household is using every extra minute of that additional time available to study or read, we know anecdotally and from meeting members of off-grid households, that access to light does improve access to education. Indeed, children’s education, in the context of energy access, has been subject to much attention in recent years. A study conducted by SolarAid found that school children in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia rated limited lighting as their main barrier to doing homework and that evening study time was increased by an hour per night on average after accessing a ‘pico-solar’ product.

Over 44 million solar products have been sold worldwide, the majority of which are in rural Africa and are typically small pico-solar products. In fact, in the last reporting period, just under 34% (nearly 1.28 million units) of the total reported products sold worldwide were attributed to pico-solar, and according to a recent Acumen study this is the only product category that is ‘currently reaching the extreme poor in a meaningful way’. However, the same Acumen report sites affordability, access, and awareness as the main challenges for low-income adoption. Kat Harrison of Acumen explains: ‘investing in companies that focus on making products or services accessible to lower-income households is key’.  Harrison also highlights the importance of enablers such as mobile money and pay-as-you-go services in creating the right ecosystem and helping to reduce ‘the tread on different steps of the energy staircase’. Increasingly, this progression is referred to as the ‘energy staircase’, rather than the ladder, since the sector is learning that off-grid customers stack their energy services, while building a suite of options. So rather than discarding products as they upgrade to a larger one, customers often use products concurrently.

I recently visited a rural store of one of the leading solar companies in Kenya. While lights and solar home systems are the best sellers, the company offers ‘add-on’ products to existing customers within the same loan model. “We sell Samsung Galaxy. These we sell to those who have already taken our lighting products, so we give them and then the customer pays off the loan” Sales assistant William Chiama told me. “Some customers pay 40 bob a day, some pay 50 bob a day (50 dollar cents). But the repayment instalments remain the same – it is just an extended pay off period. We call these ‘add on’ products”.

As well as smart phones, I noticed some indoor cook stoves, or ‘jikos’, on display in the shop.

“The jikos are mostly what the customers want, as an add-on, we sell more than four a week”. Chiama explained. “For the phones, we have the young customers – they want them. Most people are looking for smart phones – and to older customers we sell a lot of jikos.”

This company, and others like it, is offering more than simply a range of products. They are selling an opportunity. By signing up to a payment plan, the customer has the option to buy or lease a variety of practical products and build their own ‘energy staircase’, grow their own product range and consume larger or multiple systems.

And as millions start climbing their own energy staircase, it would seem likely that global literacy levels would also be set to rise. Baseline results from a study conducted in Zambia by Stanford University and Acumen showed that 10% of the time students did not complete homework it was owing to the fact that it was too dark. If the households of those same students were able to acquire better products in the next 12 months, enabling a longer study day, then next year’s International Literacy Day could represent an even greater cause for celebration.

This article is part of a series of posts on the off-grid solar sector leading up to the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum and Expo (22 – 24 January 2018, Hong Kong).

Cross-posted with GOGLA